Southern Conference spring football glance

CRAIG HALEY (Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor=)
The Associated Press

(Stats Perform) - No disrespect to former Wofford quarterback Joe Newman, but the Southern Conference will return a lot of its leading offensive talent in the 2020 season.

Passers, rushers, receivers.

And that's the thing with Wofford. The three-time defending champion Terriers return the fewest starters in the conference, most notably losing Newman, who directed their triple option offense as the SoCon's offensive player of the year last season.

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It's welcome news to Furman, The Citadel and the other teams that seek to unseat the champs in what could be a deep, terrific title race.

Following is a look across the SoCon with spring practices underway in college football:

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CHATTANOOGA

HEAD COACH: Rusty Wright (6-6, first season)

2019 RECORD: 6-6, 5-3 Southern (3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing quarterback Nick Tiano, likely with 2019 backup Drayton Arnold, although 2017 starter Cole Copeland has returned to the team. Getting healthy after 15 players on the season-opening, 44-player two-deep were unavailable for the final game.

NOTABLE: Wright earned a contract extension at his alma mater after only one season, so the Mocs hope to keep the momentum going this year. The majority of their All-SoCon players were underclassmen. Running back Ailym Ford's return from a knee injury is important, and Tyrell Price and Jeffrey Wood add to the potentially deep unit when also healthy. The defense lost a 100-tackle linebacker in Marshall Cooper, but returns one in junior Ty Boeck.

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ETSU

HEAD COACH: Randy Sanders (11-13, two seasons)

2019 RECORD: 3-9, 1-7 Southern (9th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Rebuild the offensive and defensive lines after each lost three starters. Improve on third down on both sides of the ball.

NOTABLE: Last year's drop-off was greater than excepted following the Buccaneers' 2018 SoCon co-title. Youth will reign this season, although sophomore quarterback Trey Mitchell and junior running backs Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors are highly experienced already. The defense will be hard-pressed to overcome the losses of defensive end Nasir Player and strong safety Artevius Smith, but having a healthier Tyree Robinson at free safety will boost the unit. The Bucs' road schedule is particularly tough, including Georgia, Austin Peay, The Citadel and Wofford.

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FURMAN

HEAD COACH: Clay Hendrix (22-14, three seasons)

2019 RECORD: 8-5, 6-2 Southern (2nd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Getting consistency out of rising sophomore quarterbacks Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson. Finding a replacement for place-kicker and punter Grayson Atkins, who departed as a grad transfer.

NOTABLE: The Paladins have advanced to the FCS playoffs in two of Hendrix's first three seasons and may be the team to beat in the SoCon. They're loaded at running back with Devin Wynn (1,182 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Devin Abrams (615, 6). The defense boasts defensive end Adrian Hope and linebacker Elijah McKoy, although both were more productive in 2018 than a year ago. All you have to know is the 2020 season kicks off with a home game against Wofford.

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MERCER

HEAD COACH: Drew Cronic (first season, 47-6 overall)

2019 RECORD: 4-8, 3-5 Southern (7th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Transitioning to Cronic and his new coaching staff. Improving the rush defense, which ranked last in the SoCon (269.2 yards per game on 5.7 yards per carry).

NOTABLE: Cronic was an assistant coach in the SoCon at Furman from 2002-10 and then in 2017. There's competition everywhere following a coaching change, but quarterback Kaelan Riley is in the NCAA transfer portal and his departure would end the back-and-forth play between him and rising junior Robert Riddle. The offense boosts 1,000-yard rusher Tyray Devezin and a playmaker in wide receiver/kick returner David Durden. The Bears had a minus-12 turnover margin last season.

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SAMFORD

HEAD COACH: Chris Hatcher (32-26, five seasons; 153-83 overall)

2019 RECORD: 5-7, 4-4 Southern (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Improving on last year's minus-13 turnover margin, which was the worst in the SoCon. The defense needs to be more sound in tackling.

NOTABLE: The Bulldogs did a solid job last season in overcoming the loss of 2018 Stats Perform Walter Payton Award recipient Devlin Hodges, but their offense still needs better consistency behind quarterbacks Chris Oladokun and Liam Welch. The continued development of rising sophomore running back Jay Stanton will help with the Bulldogs' poor time of possession. Their secondary struggled last season, but it gets a boost in Koi Freeman's return from injury. The special teams are strong with place-kicker Mitchell Fineran and All-America punt returner Montrell Washington leading the way.

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THE CITADEL

HEAD COACH: Brent Thompson (26-20, four seasons)

2019 RECORD: 6-6, 4-4 Southern (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing defensive tackle Joseph Randolph II on the interior. Replacing two starters on the offensive line.

NOTABLE: The Citadel will install an artificial surface at Johnson Hagood Stadium before the 2020 season, which should be the Bulldogs' best since its 2016 SoCon championship season. Quarterback Brandon Rainey's toughness - he played through injuries last season - sets the tone for the Bulldogs, who can beat any opponent on the schedule outside Clemson. While the offense runs the triple option, rising senior Raleigh Webb caught 10 touchdowns. The defense is led by linebacker Willie Eubanks III, the SoCon's 2019 defensive player of the year. Four of last year's six losses were by seven points or less.

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VMI

HEAD COACH: Scott Wachenheim (11-45, five seasons)

2019 RECORD: 5-7, 4-4 Southern (Tie/4th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: The Keydets are replacing their place-kicker and punter. Their two inside linebacker spots are open.

NOTABLE: VMI will seek to build off its best season since 2003 as well as its highest SoCon win total since 1979. Quarterback Reece Udinski went over 3,000 passing yards for the second consecutive season and set the FCS record with 368 straight pass attempts without an interception. He loses reliable targets Javeon Lara and Rohan Martin, but No. 1 wide receiver Jakob Herres is back and 1,300-yard running back Alex Ramsey caught 50 passes. VMI has to get better defensively after ranking last in the conference.

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WESTERN CAROLINA

HEAD COACH: Mark Speir (32-60, eight seasons)

2019 RECORD: 3-9, 2-6 Southern (8th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing one of the program's all-time greats in dual-threat quarterback Tyrie Adams. Improving the defense under new coordinator Tripp Weaver.

NOTABLE: The Catamounts were outscored on average by over 20 points per game, but they join The Citadel in having the most returning starters in the SoCon. The quarterback competition features rising junior Will Jones, who has plenty of experience; redshirt freshman Malik Richardson; and junior college transfer Mark Wright. Defensive linemen Adam Henderson and Trevon Poole, who were injured much of last season after being projected as starters, are returning to the lineup. Julian Pletz took over place-kicking duties after midseason and was 7 of 9 on field goals and 7 of 7 on PATs in November.

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WOFFORD

HEAD COACH: Josh Conklin (17-8, two seasons)

2019 RECORD: 8-4, 7-1 Southern (1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (4 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: The Terriers have to decide on a new quarterback after losing Joe Newman, the SoCon offensive player of the year. Reloading on the offensive line.

NOTABLE: Conklin is not pleased the three-time defending champ is playing four straight SoCon games to open the season. The offense is being hit hardest by graduation. Running back Blake Morgan is a key loss in addition to Newman, but the triple option offense has a solid trio returning in Jacquez Allen, Nathan Walker and Ryan Lovelace. SoCon coaches voted center Blake Jeresaty as the conference's top offensive lineman. The defense is usually among the conference's best and it gets back standout defensive linemen Mikel Horton and Thad Mangum from shoulder and knee injuries, respectively.

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